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Plot is hatched to save Wye's salmon

Dwindling numbers of salmon on England's premier salmon river, the river Wye, has led to riparian owners raising more than pounds 100,000 to develop a hatchery and improve the water environment.

The hundred mile long river, which for much of its length marks the border between England and Wales, has been in steady decline for the past 20 years. There are fears that without action the fish could become extinct in the river.

Now the fishery owners have formed the Wye Foundation. A former water pumping station at a secret location has been converted into a hatchery and there are plans to release 120,000 three-month-old salmon fry into the river and its tributaries next month.

If funds can be made available the aim is to continue releasing 400,000 fry each year until 2002. In addition, work is being carried out to improve the habitat of spawning and nursery areas along several hundred miles of bank.

There is also a survey to assess the economic impact of the collapse of the salmon stocks. This will identify reductions in the numbers of gillies employed, losses to hotels, pubs and tourism and to the retail trade in villages and towns.

Major General John Hopkinson, chairman of the Wye Salmon Fishery Owners and a prime mover behind the new foundation, said: "Many rivers across the country have suffered a similar fate, but here on the Wye we are determined to fight back. The fish population of the river is a barometer of its ecological health."

The Wye Foundation believes it is important that the value of the salmon is recognised both for its recreational appeal and its importance for the economy of the Wye Valley. To this end an awareness campaign is planned including a tour of schools.

Twenty years ago an average of 7,000 salmon a year, weighing an average 12lb, were caught by rod anglers. Now that number has fallen to 2,000, with the average weight down to 8lb. The decline has been particularly bad during spring.

Causes put forward include poaching, netting at sea, neglect of the river and water abstraction by industry and farmers. Whatever the cause, the return to a balanced river ecology will lead to a wealth of flora and fauna and underline the area's position as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Norman Owen, a gillie on the river, said: "I have fished here for 40 years and maybe in the past we took the salmon for granted and caught too many. Now we know there is not an endless supply and action has to be taken. Nobody wants to see the last of the salmon."

He said there was a view among some people that the salmon were just a rich man's sport, but they are an important part of the river environment enjoyed by all. There had also been a change in attitude amongst fishermen, with many now returning fish or donating them to the hatchery.